NEW YORK – A gas leak triggered a thunderous explosion that flattened two East Harlem apartment buildings Wednesday, killing at least two people, injuring more than 20 and leaving more than a dozen others missing. One tenant said residents had complained repeatedly in recent weeks about "unbearable" gas smells.
The blast rocked the neighborhood about 9:30 a.m., shattering windows a black way, hurling debris onto elevated commuter railroad tracks close by, and casting a plume of smoke over the skyline.
Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee said a resident from a building adjacent to the two that collapsed reported that he smelled gas inside his apartment, but thought the odor could be coming from outside. McGee said the utility dispatched two crews just after 9:15 a.m. but they arrived just after the explosion. He would not speculate on whether a gas leak caused the explosion.
The street is served by an eight-inch low pressure gas main, McGee said.
"We're working with the FDNY and checking gas lines," he said. "We're working to isolate any leaks and make the area safe."
The East Harlem neighborhood stood at a standstill as police set up barricades to keep residents away from the building that was still spewing thick, acrid smoke into the air, watering people's eyes. Some wore surgical masks while others held their hands or scarves over their faces.
Sidewalks for blocks around were littered with broken glass from shattered storefront and apartment windows. Witnesses say the blast neat Park Avenue and 116th Street was so powerful it knocked groceries off the shelves of nearby stores.
"It felt like an earthquake had rattled my whole building," said Waldemar Infante, 24, a porter from a nearby residential building who was working in the basement when the explosion occurred. "There were glass shards everywhere on the ground and all the stores had their windows blown out."
The two destroyed buildings, 1644 and 1646 Park Ave., were both five-story brick apartment buildings. One held a piano store on the first floor, the other a storefront church. Building Department records don't show any work in progress at either location, but the building that holds the church obtained permits to install new gas piping in June.
One resident of 1646 Park Ave., Eusebio Perez, heard news of the explosion and hurried back from his job as a piano technician.
"There's nothing left," he said by cellphone from a police barricade two blocks away. "Just a bunch of bricks and wood." Perez, 48, said he shared an apartment in the building with a roommate and was unsure what his next steps would be. "I only have what I'm wearing," he said. "I have to find a place to stay for tonight and organize what's going to be my next steps."
Eoin Hayes, 26, said the explosion shook his entire apartment building at about 9:30 a.m. He ran to the window and saw flames consuming one building and smoke rising into the air.
"I was in my bedroom and the explosion went off, it kind of shook the whole building," Hayes said. "You could feel the vibrations going through the building."
The explosion occurred very close to elevated Metro-North commuter railroad tracks. Metro-North service was suspended to and from Grand Central on all three train lines while employees remove debris from the tracks.
The fire department said it sent nearly 200 members to the scene.